Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Differential growth in life expectancy?

There has been a lot of discussion about Annie Lowrey's article on changes in life expectancy, documenting how most of the recent rise in life expectancy is among Americans of higher socio-economic status.  I did find the question of causality to be less compelling:

It is hard to prove causality with the available information. County-level data is the most detailed available, but it is not perfect. People move, and that is a confounding factor. McDowell’s population has dropped by more than half since the late 1970s, whereas Fairfax’s has roughly doubled. Perhaps more educated and healthier people have been relocating from places like McDowell to places like Fairfax. In that case, life expectancy would not have changed; how Americans arrange themselves geographically would have.

“These things are not nearly as clear as they seem, or as clear as epidemiologists seem to think,” said Angus Deaton, an economist at Princeton.
It is possible that there is a process of re-arrangement going on.  But that still doesn't make charts like the second one in this Aaron Carroll blog post easier to explain.  If the higher earning recipients of social security live longer than the lower earning recipients, then this association is not simple to explain with a direct appeal to the ecological fallacy. 

This is the sort of case where data is limited but we still need to make decisions.  It is odd that with some decisions we are desperately worried about getting things wrong when it advantages the affluent but we seem quite worried about over-interpreting data when redistribution would be the obvious policy solution. 

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